Best Pre-Workout Guide 2020 - Finding a Pre Workout Supplement for Your Needs

by Trevor Hiltbrand | Reviewed by Advisory Board

Best Pre-Workout Guide 2020 - Finding a Pre Workout Supplement for Your Needs

When it comes to finding a pre-workout, there are a lot of options. It seems like every guy who falls in love with the gym decides to create his own pre-workout, at one time or another. 

The hard part is sifting through the marketing, the over exaggerated performance claims, and the bro-science you here at your local gym. The hard part is actually learning about the ingredients AND the evidence supporting those ingredients, to find the best pre-workout out there. 

This is where we come in. 

At Transparent Labs, we work with experts, PhD researchers, dietitians, and professional nutritionists to utilize the most up to date research available on various performance enhancing sports nutrition ingredients. All of our products are formulated with tested ingredients, at the dosages found to be effective in actual clinical studies.

Depending on YOUR specific fitness goals, your need for different ingredients and micro nutrients may very. This is why we have created 3 different pre-workouts, for the 3 primary category needs - bulking, cutting, and a stimulant free version (for those who are looking to cycle off caffeine). Most people fall under 1 of these 3 categories, save for ultra niche dietary needs.

The remaining article will dive into what makes a good pre-workout for each of these 3 categories, which pre-workouts available on the market are best and why, and a review of the top performing ingredients in this space.

Want to skip around? Below is a linked table of contents.

  1. Top 3 Bulking PWOs
  2. Top 3 Cutting PWOs
  3. Top 3 Stim-Free PWOs
  4. Pre-Workouts for Women vs Men
  5. Quick Tips on Analyzing Pre-Workouts
  6. Ingredients The Best Pre-Workout Products Contain


Ultimate BULKING Pre-Workout

Before we jump in to the rankings, we want to address the obvious bias that we have here. We believe, full heartedly, that our pre-workouts are the best pre-workouts you can buy. We formulate each product in accordance with clinical studies, without regard to ingredient cost. 

We have included products that are not our own, because we respect their formulas. 

Another option is to copy these formulas and create your own pre-workout stack. This is time intensive and will most likely taste disgusting, but is the best way to save a few bucks.  

Bulking pre-workouts are our recommendations for most people unless you specifically looking to lose weight AND are following a calorie deficit diet.

Pre-workouts are best at increasing workout performance, endurance, muscle growth, and recovery, which pertains to muscle growth and falls under the bulking category. 

#1 Transparent Labs PreSeries BULK

#1 best pre workout for building muscle

PreSeries BULK is a powerful pre-workout, with each ingredient maxed and matched to clinical studies. By using a full clinical dose of citrulline malate, beta-alanine, betaine, and BCAAs, BULK will provide superior pump and endurance over any other product and is considered by hundreds of thousands to be the best pre workout on the market.

BULK also contains an ethical dose of caffeine (180mg), paired at the clinically backed 2:1 ratio of l-theanine to caffeine. This provides a clean energy feel, without jitters or crash. You won't believe how hyped you feel off only 180 mg!

Perhaps the biggest mistake pre-workout companies make is over caffeinating their products. This causes long term adrenal fatigue and the need for constantly upping the dosage. A properly formulated pre-workout does not need excessive amounts of caffeine.

What we like. 

  • Full dose of Citrulline Malate 2:1 with L-Norvaline for extended NO
  • Fermented vegan BCAAs
  • The highest dose of Beta-Alanine (full clinical dose)
  • L-Theanine + Caffeine in 2:1 ratio
  • No food dyes, no artificial sweeteners or flavors
  • Testosterone Support Complex (with vitamin D, Zinc and Boron)

What we don't like. 

Nothing. This is the premier pre-workout option, with the closest matched ingredient dosages to clinical studies.

New customers, get 15% off using code "bestpre" at checkout.

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#2 PreJym by Jym Supplements

runner up pre jym supplement

Jim Stappani knows his stuff. We have nothing but respect for the Jym series lineup. PreJym is a powerhouse of ingredients with

Things we like

  • Full dose of citrulline malate
  • Alpha GPC and Huperzine A. This is a strong nootropic formulation that should have a strong impact on focus. Huperzine A has been known for causing nauseaness/dizziness, so if you feel these effects, discontinue use.
  • Extra Leucine

Things we don't like. 

  • PreJym is underdosing beta-alanine and betaine. These are perhaps the two best ingredients for increasing workout performance.
  • 2 grams sugar in flavoring.
  • Inclusion of small dose creatine
  • 300 mg is an excessive amount of caffeine. With a little more beta-alanine, betaine, taurine, etc, they wouldn't need to overcompensate with caffeine.
  • Sucralose 

NOTE: Creatine is one of the BEST supplemental ingredients for increasing muscle mass, probably only second to protein. HOWEVER, as stated directly on the Creapure® website, caffeine inhibits the uptake of creatine. We recommend a stand a lone creatine product, spaced out at least 4 hours from pre-workout consumption.

#3 Cellucor C4 Ultimate 

c4 ultimate review ranked number 3

We give C4 (Original) a hard time.. a lot. In fact, it is our go to comparison product because of how bad it is vs how many people use it. So many people buy it because they are simply uninformed.

However, if you are loyal to the Cellucor brand, C4 Ultimate is a decently formulated product. The downside is, you pay for it. 20 servings is $40 - more expensive per serving and per gram than both above products. 

Things we like.

  • Full dose citrulline malate
  • 3.2g beta-alanine

Things we don't like.

  • Partial Proprietary blend (energy) - Half of the formula is transparent, the other half proprietary? This is clearly to hide under-dosed ingredients (most likely TeaCrine® and AlphaSize®)
  • No BCAAs
  • Excessive Caffeine (300 mg)

Getting cut? Here's What You Should Look For in a Weight Loss Pre Workout

Pre-workouts make much better muscle builders/endurance enhancers than fat burners... which is why we encourage most people to use BULK. However, pre-workouts, if formulated correctly, can help preserve muscle mass while in a calorie deficit.


#1 PreSeries LEAN

best pre workout for weight loss

The most important element of a good cutting pre-workout is it's ability to prevent muscle wasting. While in a calorie deficit, your body will not only burn fat for fuel, but muscle as well (by breaking down muscle tissue to release amino acids). You can limit this with BCAAs.

What we like. 

  • 2g BCAA 2:1:1 (fremented vegan) to assist in preventing muscle wasting and workout recovery
  • Inclusion of synephrine - an ingredient shown to increase RMR (resting metabolic rate) by 65-183 kcal.
  • Full 6g Citrulline Malate 2:1 + L-Norvaline for extended N.O.
  • No food dyes, no artificial sweeteners or flavors
  • Thyroid support complex (plays a role in metabolism and energy)

New to TL, get 15% off using coupon code "bestpre" at checkout.

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#2 Mr. Hyde

mr hyde pre review

What we like.

  • 2.5g Beta-Alanine
  • Blended caffeine sources (anhydrous, di-caffeine malate, caffeine citric acid blend)
  • Choline bitartrate (same as LEAN). Great for focus. 

What we don't like.

  • This product is WAY over stimulated with 378mg of blended caffeine. This might give you that crazy hyped feel, but only for a few days. This will leave you fatigued during non training days.
  • Under-dosed pump ingredients. This has 1/6th the pump power of PreSeries LEAN.
  • Food dyes and sucralose

#3 ENGN Shred

engn shred

ENGN Shred is a big seller, but the ingredient profile just doesn't stack up to most pre-workouts. At only 7.7g a scoop, you can be sure most of the ingredients are underdosed.

Things we like. 

  • Beta-Alanine (underdosed, but happy to have some in this formula)
  • Green tea extract - a decent fat burner.

Things we don't like.

  • Nothing to boost nitric oxide.
  • Proprietary formula that hides under-dosed ingredients (like betaine, choline bitartrate, l-tyrosine)
  • Food dyes and sucralose


STIMULANT-FREE Pre-Workouts are Still Powerful Workout Enhancers

Many people wrongly assume that pre-workouts are only good for boosting energy through stimulants like caffeine. If that were true, I'd skip this whole article and simply recommend caffeine pills (you can get half a years worth of 200 mg for less than $20).

Be sure to read the ingredient section below to dive into the science and effectiveness of these popular pre-workouts.

#1 PreSeries STIM-FREE


STIM-FREE is jammed packed with full dose of citrulline, beta-alanine, BCAAs, and betaine, similar to BULK but with an added boost of Creatine HCl (since there is no caffeine to inhibit uptake).

Things we like.

  • Full dose Citrulline Malate 2:1 paired with L-Norvaline for extended NO
  • Full clinical dose of beta-alanine, betaine, and BCAAS
  • No artificial sweeteners, food dyes, or artificial flavoring
  • Full clinical dose of beta-alanine

Buy Now »

#2 Genius Pre

Genius Pre

What we like.

  • Full dose citrulline malate 2:1
  • ElevATP is an interesting ingredient for power output with a lot of promise, but more studies are needed
  • AlphaGPC is a powerful nootropic with evidence supporting increased power-output. It is one of the more efficient choline sources, but at 150mg is dosed pretty low. Choline bitartrate is cheaper, but when dosed properly, can be equally as powerful

What we don't like.


  • Not as much beta-alanine or betaine as PreSeries above. 
  • Theobromine is still a stimulant
  • No BCAAs

#3 NutraBio Pre Stim-Free

NutraBio Pre Stim-Free

Things we like. 

  • Full dose Citrulline (6g), full dose beta-alanine at 3.2g (only slightly less than PreSeries, full dose betaine
  • Full dose tyrosine and choline bitartrate
  • Full label disclosure 

Things we don't like. 

  • Including Agmatine (we like agmatine, but it does not play well with Citrulline)
  • Huperzine A is often considered dangerous
  • This is the most expensive of the three ($40/20 servings). PreSeries Stim-Free is a better value.
  • sucralose and artificial flavoring

Best Pre-Workout for Women vs Men

pre workout for women vs men

Gender specific recommendations is something we get a lot of requests for. To be honest, choosing a pre-workout for women is not overly different than choosing a pre-workout for men. 

The ingredients found in pre-workout supplements, more often than not, have the same effects on women as they do men. The idea that men and women need different products is often nothing more than a marketing ploy by companies trying to sell "tailored blends."

We recommend finding products that are designed for your nutrition and fitness GOALS. Your gender is not overly relevant. 

NOTE: Women are often lighter weight/less overall body mass, and often require less/smaller serving sizes.

This is why we have included the three categories above, because they target the specific goals (or dietary restrictions for stim-free) most people fall under.


Quick Tips on Finding The Best Pre Workout Drinks

The first thing you should do when evaluating a pre-workout is look at the ingredient profile. 

If the formula is proprietary, put it back on the shelf, or get back on google and start your search all over again. Proprietary formulas are NOT for protecting some kind of miracle formula from would be copy cats. It is ONLY a tool for hiding a cheap, under-dosed formula. Period.

Two more quick things to look for...

  1. The number of servings in a bottle. A lot of more expensive pre-workouts, will trick you into thinking they are more affordable, by only offering 20-22 servings. Don't be fooled by this. Having less servings is not necessarily bad, but it can be deceiving when evaluating VALUE.
  2. Check the serving size. Many cheap pre-workouts will have tiny scoops. This should be a big red flag, especially if you are looking for pump and recovery ingredients (all of which require 4-6 grams themselves of active ingredients.

To illustrate the Transparent Labs difference, let's compare PreSeries BULK to america's #1 selling pre-workout - cellucor c4. This product can be found on/in Amazon, Costco, Walmart, GNC, and pretty much every single supplement shop and gym. 

Consumers are being duped!

Just because a product has mass distribution, doesn't mean it is the best. It usually means that it is the cheapest to make, and can achieve the best margins. 

If you are not familiar with the term, margins = (sale price - cost to make)/sale price x100. This will give you the percent of the revenue going towards profit. 

C4 is cheap to make, because it uses cheap or underdosed ingredients. Thus, enabling more profit for the company and retailers.

Don't believe me, check this out.  

Serving Size (g) 6 22.58
# of Servings 30 30
Price (retail MSRP) $29.99 $49.99
Price (discounted) $27.46 $44.10
Price (volume) $24.99 $35.70
Price Per Gram (retail MSRP)
$0.17 $0.07
Per Gram (discounted)
$0.15 $0.07
Price Price Per Gram (volume)
$0.14 $0.05

We've found that price per gram is the best indicator of VALUE in any pre-workout (with minor exceptions to account for excessive fillers, flavors, sweeteners, etc). More doesn't always mean better, but you can do a base judgement on the cost of a pre-workout based on its total scoop size and # of servings.Value is one metric, but ingredients and effectiveness is another.


Ingredients Matter

This time, let's take a look at C4's ingredient profile and compare to PreSeries BULK. 

how to analyze supplement facts panels

I think you can see, right off the bat that PreSeries BULK has far more of each ingredient. 

All 3 Transparent Labs PWOs contain as much citrulline malate (the clinically effective dose) as the entire C4 formula.

*Note - we compare arginine to citrulline because citrulline malate has been found to be more effective at increasing blood plasma arginine levels than when supplementing with arginine alone. 


Ingredients Top Tier Pre-Workouts Include

picture of pre workout powder

There are hundreds of different supplement ingredients that promise to boost workout performance and recovery, but only a select few with actual evidence of doing so.

Most companies all use similar ingredients, but what is really important is using the most effective ingredients at the proper dosages. 

Below we have compiled the best pre-workout ingredients and the dosages these ingredients have been shown to be effective at. For details on what these ingredients do, click the drop down buttons.

This database of ingredients is intended to be unbiased. If there are powerful ingredients that we are missing (backed by published clinical studies), please let us know in the comments. Most of these ingredients can be found in our PreSeries line up, but not all. Some of these ingredients do similar things, and so, do not need to be combined in a pre-workout. In most cases, exceed clinically tested dosages will not improve or increase the ingredients effectiveness. 

If you are looking for fully stacked pre-workouts, we would love it if you gave ours a try. However, if you prefer, you are free to make your own pre-workouts by buying the ingredients separately, or finding other products that have the ingredients that you prefer.

#1 Citrulline Malate 2:1 (Clinically tested range: 4,000-8,000 mg)

L-Citrulline is a popular ingredient in pre workouts, due to its ability to raise nitric oxide levels even greater than l-arginine [1]. This effect on its own improves circulation, allowing nutrients and oxygen to travel faster in the body and create ‘the pump’.

This makes L-citrulline ideal for bodybuilders, but athletes can benefit greater from L-Citrulline DL-Malate.

Malate, is a useful compound involved in energy production. When paired with Citrulline as Citrulline Malate, both circulation and cellular energy and endurance are improved – completely stimulant free. This noticeably improves performance, endurance [3], and helps you reach your goals.

Citrulline malate also enhances the bodies usage of BCAA supplements as a fuel source [4].

How much do you need? Studies indicated 4-8 grams of citrulline malate 2:1 - NOT L-citrulline, not citrulline malate 1:1.

Most products on the market contain around 2 grams due to sheer cost. Brands that do contain 6 grams often only provide 20 servings per container. Transparent Labs PreSeries pre workouts contain the full 6 grams per serving, at 30 servings per bag.

Similar Ingredients:

It isn’t uncommon for Citrulline to be replaced with L-arginine, beet root, or agmatine sulfate to produce a pump. When dosed appropriately, this will increase circulation. However, it will not increase endurance and cellular energy the same way Citrulline Malate does. Citrulline also has far more clinical research than agmatine, and studies have shown citrulline malate to perform better than l-arginine.

At 6 grams, Citrulline Malate is a stand-alone ingredient. Transparent Labs pre workouts all contain 6 grams and we offer raw Citrulline Malate here.

Note: to extend the pump from Citrulline Malate, we add 60 mg of L-Norvaline to our pre workouts. This ingredient greatly reduces the enzymatic decay of l-arginine allowing more to enter the nitric oxide pathway. This is vital, because citrulline cycles

#2 Beta-Alanine (3,200-4,000 mg)

Beta-alanine is an often misunderstood ingredient that is even more commonly under-dosed. When properly supplemented with, beta-alanine creates a buffer that helps neutralize lactic acid build-up similar to the way that creatine restores muscular ATP [1].

A study with highly trained athletes analyzing the effects of 3 weeks of beta-alanine supplementation showed a significant increase in total bench press volume and a reduced feeling of fatigue, when compared to placebo group [2].

However to have this desired effect, beta-alanine must reach a specific concentration. One that many pre workouts never offer due to suboptimal dosing.

The worst part about beta-alanine under-dosing is that this doesn’t just make the ingredients effect weaker, it makes it entirely unnoticeable.

So why do most brands under-dose beta-alanine or reduce your servings? Because it is incredibly expensive. Transparent Labs does not under-dose beta-alanine.

How much do you need? 4 grams is ideal for beta-alanine supplementation. One caveat to beta-alanine is that this ingredient doesn’t necessarily need to be taken right before exercise. Rather, if you consistently take beta-alanine the same way you take creatine – your concentrations will remain effectively elevated throughout the day. We choose to include beta-alanine in our PreSeries pre workouts to simplify your routine and reduce your supplement expense.

Similar Ingredients:

Some may argue that bicarbonates are similar in their ability to buffer against acidity, however, we consider them half-rate in comparsion.

#3 Betaine (Clinically tested dosage range: 2500 mg)

Betaine, aka trimethylglycine, is a molecule derived from the beet root.

Betaine works to increase water retention within the cells (osmolyte), offering cellular protection, wherein normal conditions the cells would be damaged from physical stressors. It also works as a methyl donor, impacting many vital physiological processes ranging from dna replication to protein function.

The benefits of betaine, as shown in clinical studies include:
Improved body composition [1]
Increase power output and force [2]
Improved muscle endurance [3]
Increased bench press repetition and force [4]

Betaine has an impressive list of clinical support, and is one of the best (and most under-hyped) pre-workout ingredients. 

#4 BCAA 2:1:1 (Clinically tested dosage range: 4,000-8,000 mg)

The 2:1:1 ratio is the most studied and supported ratio of leucine, isoleucine, and valine - in that order (commonly referred to as BCAAs). These amino acids have been studied separately, and in combination.

Jointly, BCAAs have proven in preventing muscle wasting, especially for those following reduced calorie protocols. BCAA supplementation increases resistance to fatigue and slows glycogen depletion [4].

Leucine is widely considered to be the most anabolic of the three, working to activate mTOR - the gene responsible for protein synthesis. One study showed significant power increase with leucine supplementation [1].

Isoleucine works to increase glucose uptake into the muscle cells [2].

The effects of Valine are less clear, however, studies do show improved results by including them over excluding them. It is commonly believed that valine reduces tryptophan, resulting in greater energy and stamina during workouts. Transparent Labs uses fermented vegan BCAAs.

#5 L-Theanine + Caffeine 2:1

We all know the energizing effects of caffeine supplementation. It's an ingredient we can feel minutes within ingestion. What many do not know, is that when L-thenaine is paired with caffeine, there are noticeable improvements in cognition and mood [1].

L-theanine paired with caffeine has been well studied in the 2:1 ratio, and the results are impressive, compared to caffeine consumption alone.

A 2008 study published in the Journal of Nutrition showed L-theanine and caffeine to work synergistically to improve reaction time, focus, cognition, and behavioral performance [2].

Dosage is depended on tolerance levels. Be careful on the slippery slope of caffeine tolerance. Many people fall victim to the seemingly ever increasing caffeine dosage in pre-workouts. We suggest staying BELOW 250 mg. Both caffeinated PreSeries products remain at 180mg, and we suggest cycling off every 3rd month with our (or any) Stim-Free pre-workout.

Too much caffeine can cause heart issues, tremors, restlessness and anxiety. Matching with L-theanine can help lesson the ill-effects of caffeine consumption.

#6 Choline Bitartrate (Clinically tested dosage range: 250-500 mg) 

There are 3 primary forms of choline (bitartrate, cdp-choline, and Alpha GPC). The latter two are preferred for brain and nootropic benefits. However, choline bitartrate is well studied for providing liver protection and, more importantly to our readers, workout performance enhancements, especially in endurance athletes [1].

It was concluded that 94% of adults were deficient in choline [2].

Users report a feeling of increased vigor and energy when supplementing with choline bitartrate.

Choline supplementation also works as a methyl donor, helping to convert homocysteine (bad) into methionine (good) [3].

#7 Synephrine (clinically tested dosage range: 10-50 mg)

We LOVE synephrine and think all top tier pre-workouts should utilize it. Not only has it been shown to increase resting metabolic rate by a massive 65-183 kcal [1] - it also works synergistically with caffeine to increase energy [3] and cognition (as measured by stroop test) [2].  

Recommended daily dose ranges from 10-50mg.

#8 Taurine (clinically tested dosage range: 1,000-2,000 mg)

Although basic/ common/ old-school, taurine should NOT be overlooked as an important pre-workout ingredient.

Taurine has been shown to be a strong brain booster, working synergistically with caffeine, while activating GABA receptors, reducing brain cell inflammation and oxidative stress [3]. It also works to positively improve blood flow [1][2], helping to deliver muscle repair nutrients throughout the body, while having no negative impact on blood pressure.

A meta analysis on oral taurine supplementation (1-2g) showed an overall improvement on human endurance performance [4].

Taurine is considered very safe, and is created naturally in the body and obtained through common foods.  

#9 N-Acetyl L-Carnitine (clinically tested dosage range: 500-1,000mg) 

Not to be confused with it's little brother 'L-Carnitine', N-Acetyl L-Carnitine (ALCAR) is the more powerful acetylated version, capable of providing enhanced energy at the mitochondrial level (unlike caffeine which targets the nervous system).

ALCAR was shown to reduce the symptoms of muscle damage and oxidative stress after resistance training in trained adult males [1].

NOTE: The inclusion of this ingredient and others like synephrine are how we are able to keep the caffeine content low in BULK and LEAN, but still provide the energy enhancements users expect from a pre-workout. 

#10 L-Norvaline 

Within your body, there is an enzyme arganise that will work to shut off the supply of nitric oxide. L-norvaline works to inhibit this enzyme, allowing the citrulline to do it's job and provide an extended nitric oxide boost [1][2]. 

We hope you enjoyed this in depth article. If there is anything we are missing please let us know in the comments below. We will be making frequent updates to this page.

Whatever pre-workout YOU chose, we hope your decision is based on educated analysis.

Join us in our commitment to excellence, and experience the difference a fully dosed, clean, top tier pre-workout can make on your athletic performance and fitness goals.

fuel your workouts with a one of our top selling pres

Trevor Hiltbrand
Trevor Hiltbrand


Trevor Hiltbrand is one of the owners/co-founders of Transparent Labs and head of content creation. He got his start with supplement research back in 2013 when he began researching cognitive enhancement. With the help of the Transparent Labs Expert Panel and Advisory Board, we aim to bring our evidence based nutrition and exercise research to the world.

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